A report commissioned by the Government looks set to recommend the introduction of an income contingent loan scheme to address funding issues at third level.
Under such a scheme people would take out a loan to cover the cost of tuition and pay it back on an income contingent basis once they graduate.
The scheme, which has seen tuition rise to £9,000 per year in the UK, poses many difficulties. However the new proposed loan scheme will disproportionately affect those from rural and agricultural backgrounds, deter them from applying to college, and widen the gap between urban and rural opportunities.
People from rural backgrounds are more likely to be on third-level grants and so are more likely to be affected by the new proposals.
Under the current draft of the proposal those who currently qualify for the grant will no longer have the fee covered and it will result in an effective increase of just under €20,000.
Such a move will have a significant impact on the rural community, who rely heavily on the grant supports to attend third level.
Additionally the proposed assessment of assets when allocating grants will disproportionately affect farming families.
While the paper suggests increased maintenance supports it also indicates that assets should be taken into account which would see the traditionally asset-rich, cash-poor farming family hit again.
Introducing fees along with cuts to the maintenance supports for rural families could spell the end of the increased accessibility to third level seen in recent years.
The plan is counter-intuitive in an economy so heavily reliant on both a highly educated workforce and a high-performing agri-sector.
The agri-food sector in Ireland contributes a value of €26bn to the national economy, generates 7.6% of gross value added (GVA), almost 12.3% of Ireland’s exports and provides 8.6% of national employment.
Due to low levels of import dependence and profit repatriation on one hand, and high levels of investment in the local economy on the other, the sector provides balanced growth which is being felt throughout the country.
With a 45% increase in the value of food and drink exports achieved since 2009, Ireland’s agri-food sector has been a driving force of export growth and national economic recovery.
The sector’s performance and associated increased employment opportunities have resulted in a huge surge in enrolment numbers for agricultural and agri-food courses.
The Irish Government needs to ensure equality of access to third-level education for low-income farm families to fully deliver on the potential and growth opportunities in the sector.
Additionally the sector has been a strong contributor to third level.
There are currently 56 third-level agricultural courses of offer, covering a range of cutting-edge contemporary technologies and approaches to modern farming in Ireland.
The most frustrating aspect of the income contingent loan approach is that it seeks to increase the burden on those that have already contributed so much while paying lip service to the contribution of others.
Firstly, at €3,000, Ireland already has the second highest fees in Europe for third level. The proposed €1,000 increase is unacceptable on an upfront or deferred payment basis.
This is especially true when one considers the fact that the fee has increased by 240% since 2008.
Secondly, the State contribution is way below the OECD average. Spend per student at third level puts Ireland 29th of 32 OECD countries.
It would stand to reason that a country reliant on a highly-educated workforce for FDI would invest in that workforce.
Finally, minor changes could see other stakeholders make the necessary contribution without overburdening students and their families.
The introduction of a levy similar to the national training levy could generate hundreds of millions for the underfunded sector.
Additionally, increasing employers’ PRSI would add significantly more.
If we applied EU average rates to Ireland employers’ PRSI would generate an additional €8bn per year.
Unfortunately the current draft of the report has decided to focus on the introduction of a scheme that will be highly punitive to all those who participate in third level and in particular those from rural backgrounds.
While we may be seeing the shoots of recovery the benefits are rarely, if ever, experienced outside of the major urban areas and news that your child should take on tens of thousands of debt and take cuts to their maintenance support will not be good for any of us.
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